Cook County Addresses Dramatic Increase in 2020 Opioid Overdose Deaths

July 14, 2020

Today, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, and physicians from Cook County Health addressed the exponential increase in opioid overdose deaths this year.

“This year continues to showcase the dangerous consequences we face as a result of decades – centuries – of racial inequities,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “While much of this year has been consumed by our fight to contain COVID-19, which has disproportionately impacted our communities of color, we’ve had to contend with skyrocketing homicide rates which almost universally took the lives of Black and Brown people and we must face the devastating toll the opioid crisis is taking on our community as well.”

President Preckwinkle said these compounding public health crises showcase the existing inequities in our system and their disproportionate impact on the communities that already struggle with disinvestment, lack of resources, violence and poverty. 

Cook County is on track to double the number of opioid-related deaths from 2019. While African Americans make up under 24 percent of the County’s population, they account for half of all opioid deaths in the County this year.

Last year, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed 605 opioid overdose deaths between January 1 and July 13. This year, that number stands at 773. But that only tells part of the story. The Office is still awaiting results of 580 pending cases. According to Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, 70 – 80 percent of those cases will be confirmed as opioid overdoses. This means that there are already approximately 1,200 opioid toxicity deaths in Cook County this year.

In 2019, the Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed a total of 1,267 opioid overdose deaths. In 2018, the Office confirmed 1,148. The victims are overwhelmingly people of color. Of the 773 cases confirmed this year, 63 percent are Black or Latino. Forty-five to 54-year-olds are most likely to succumb to an opioid overdose, and 55- to 64-year-olds are second most likely to die from an opioid overdose. These age groups have consistently been the most vulnerable to opioid deaths over the past few years.

“Our Office is used to dealing with death, but we will never get used to the tragedy that each death represents,” said Arunkumar. “While we concentrate on our mission to establish the cause and manner of death for the cases that fall under our jurisdiction, we do not accept that they had to occur. These deaths are preventable, and we have a responsibility to do all we can to stop as many as we can.”

While opioid toxicity deaths have spiked, the emergency departments at Cook County Health have seen no uptick in opioid-related emergency room visits. Dr. Steve Aks, division chair of emergency medicine and toxicology at Cook County Health, said. 

“This is extremely alarming because an opioid overdose patient will likely live if given naloxone in the ambulance and opioid overdose deaths in the emergency department are a rare event,” said Dr. Aks. “Due to the pandemic, we asked individuals to stay at home unless it is an emergency – an overdose is an emergency.”

One program that has gotten a more than 20 percent increase in participation is the medication assisted treatment program (MAT) at Cook County Health. MAT is a combination of FDA-approved medication and behavioral health support and considered the gold standard approach to substance use disorders treatment according to Dr. Juleigh Nowinski Konchak, MAT physician lead at Cook County Health. She says Cook County Health has adapted how it is caring for patients with substance abuse disorders during the pandemic.

“We are working to keep patients safe by breaking down barriers to access through telehealth visits, frequent team-based engagement and outreach, access to naloxone for overdose prevention, and longer prescription supplies to avoid disruptions in care,” said Dr. Nowinski Konchak.

To access data regarding opioid-related deaths in Cook County, visit the Medical Examiner’s case archive and opioid map